Utah University Settles Free-speech Suit with Former Students

September 17, 2015

By Annie Knox at The Salt Lake Tribune

Dixie State University has settled a free-speech lawsuit from three students who were blocked from posting satirical portraits of Barack Obama, George Bush and Che Guevara on campus.

The settlement was finalized Thursday, closing the suit directed by nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

One of the plaintiffs, former Dixie student William Jergins, said he’s “absolutely thrilled” by the resolution.

“We’re told in every civics class since the third grade how important freedom of speech is in a democracy,” Jergins said.

If First Amendment rights are restricted on college campuses, he added, graduates “are going into that democracy and the rest of our lives completely unprepared.”
Jergins said he hopes the outcome will prompt other universities to bring their speech codes in line with the First Amendment.

In May, Dixie State dropped its limits on students’ free speech, including a requirement for prior approval from administrators to post fliers or hold events on campus.

The university’s president, Richard Williams, could not be reached Thursday. Spokeswoman Jyl Hall issued a statement, saying the university “is grateful for the stronger speech policies that resulted from the lawsuit, but is disappointed in the way the changes came about.”

School officials would have worked with the students to review the speech policies in October, when the issue arose, the statement reads, but learned of the group’s struggles only via the lawsuit.

A new set of school speech policies, drafted in part by the Utah attorney general’s office, is in effect on campus. It’s part of a larger school plan to be announced at the school’s homecoming celebration next week.

The new rules also nix protocol that restricted events to certain “free speech” areas on campus. And they mandate that administrators be trained on the campus’ new speech policies.

Williams announced those policy changes in a university-wide email in May. He called Dixie State a campus “where even unpopular answers, seemingly absurd ideas and unconventional thought are not only permitted, but even encouraged.”

Still, Williams urged caution, saying college communities “must balance the requirements of free speech with issues of civility, respect and human dignity.”

It wasn’t the first free-speech clash for Dixie State, which transitioned from college status to university in 2013. That year, the dean of the business school ordered the student newspaper to stop publication of a sex column, but he quickly reversed the decision.

The three students who sued the school in March said they were forbidden from posting satirical pictures of the former president and the Cuban revolutionary leader in October 2014. Jergins, Joey Gillespie and Forrest Gee were promoting Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian-leaning group.

The students said they were told the fliers with photos violated school protocol by mocking someone.

They later said the school’s policy of requiring permission before posting materials was arbitrary and violated their First Amendment rights, court documents show.

The students’ suit named several Dixie State officials, including Williams. The nonprofit FIRE hired its attorneys. After the students’ fliers were rejected in October, they planned to create an on-campus “Free Speech Wall” of blank paper for students to write on.

But the school further violated their free speech rights by sequestering the celebration in a remote corner of campus, the students’ attorney said in court documents.

The students said they got the necessary approval for the event from school officers but were told to put the wall in a seldom-visited, designated “free speech” zone. A police officer showed up even though they had not requested the added security, which the students argued shooed off students.

Before its policy update, the St. George school of about 8,500 students had only a loose set of protocols, Assistant Utah Attorney General Joni Jones said in May as she helped draft the new rules.

The rules put some restrictions on the time and location of free speech. Fliers or other materials posted on campus must be stamped with the date they were posted. Administrators may take them down after 15 days. And no papers or other materials may be placed on trees or building exteriors — including windows and doors.

Schools: Dixie State University Cases: Dixie State University – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit